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Cambridge University Library


Louis Colville Gray Clarke (1881-1960) was Director of the Fitzwilliam Museum from 1937 to 1946, and an avid collector of books and artworks. He left his collection of paintings and fine art to the Fitzwilliam, alongside some 2700 items he had given during his lifetime. He also left to the University Library many of his books including this collection of 265 books by and about the French author Nicolas Edmé Restif de la Bretonne (1734-1806), many of which are unique in the library's holdings. Nicolas was the first child of his father's second wife; his first wife had seven surviving children and his second would have another eight after Nicolas. He grew up in relative comfort in the countryside near Auxerre and many of his later novels focus on an idealised, highly moral and paternalistic view of life in the countryside, which he compared favourably to the dissolute life of city dwellers. He adopted the name of the family farm, La Bretonne, and changed the spelling of his name from Rétif to the more archaic Restif when he began work as a printer, firstly as an apprentice in Auxerre and later at the Imprimerie Royale.He began writing in earnest in his thirties, and went on to publish more than 50 works.

Restif's career spanned 35 years and many different styles of writing. His reputation has been unfairly influenced by some of his later works, which took his fantasy life to extremes and were more explicit than literary. Works such as L'Anti-Justine (1798) and Les posthumes (1802) were banned for their content and few copies survive; Clarke gave copies of both to the Library. Yet he also wrote a highly regarded autobiography, Monsieur Nicolas (1794-7) and a near-hagiographic account of his father, La vie de mon père (1799). His early moral stance was expressed in the series of Idées singulaires which set out his ideas for reform of prostitution, the theatre, education, women, mankind and the law. Amongst his most popular works were collections of short stories about women, city life and anecdotal accounts of events in Paris; L'Année des dames nationales (1791) narrated the tales of over 600 women from all regions of France, while Les contemporaines (1780-85) extended to 42 volumes of anecdotes. Les nuits de Paris, (1788-94) subtitled Le spectateur nocturne was a sort of thousand and one nights telling stories Restif had supposedly overheard in the streets of pre-revolutionary Paris. Many of these include plates, the majority of which depict the costumes of the period, and the anecdotal stories were seen from the mid-twentieth century as valuable historical sources as well as entertaining fiction.

Louis Clarke purchased many of his copies of Restif's books at auction, and his purchasing patterns are recorded in an interleaved bibliography of Restif's works interleaved with information about where copies were bought. This volume, along with many others in the Clarke collection, were previously owned by Frank Linsly James (1851-1890), a traveller and explorer who had an interest in collecting books. A 'selected portion' of his collection was auctioned in 1936 by his sister-in-law, numbering 300 titles, including 18 works by Restif. The bibliography mentioned above includes James' own notes about his editions of Restif as well as Clarke's subsequent notes. They provide an interesting history of the market in Restif's works, as well as of James' and Clarke's collecting habits. James concentrated on books with fine bindings wherever possible, and noted the names of the binders where they were known; they include Chambolle-Duru, Belin, Zaehnsdorf and Bedford. Clarke continued this pattern of seeking out finely bound copies, and purchased several volumes from the Mortimer Schiff sale in 1938 including bindings by Rivière.The collection given by Clarke includes copies of nearly all Restif's publications. He wrote 56 known works, of which Clarke gave first editions of 31. He also gave later editions of a further five, and of the remaining 20 titles, the Library holds copies of 11 in other collections (some are modern facsimiles). Between them James and Clarke collected some of the rarest editions of Restif's works, including variant editions, cancel pages and banned texts.

Amongst the highlights is a very rare copy of Restif's philosophical work on reform of prostitution, Le pornographe (the first part of Idées singulaires). The book was first published in 1769 by Delalain, who had printed Restif's second work, Lucile, ou La progres de la vertu the year before. Delalain soon decided, however, that he did not want his name associated with the work and had the title pages reprinted with the imprint 'À Londres chez Nourse... A la Haie, chez Gosse et Pinet'. There are fewer than 10 copies with the original title page known to survive. Other works were printed in limited editions; the second part of Idées singulaires, Le mimographe (a programme for reform of the theatre) was printed in an edition of 200, of which the Library has one of fewer than 20 extant copies. The 1802 semi-science fiction work Les posthumes given by Clarke includes two rare features; both the frontispieces to each of the four volumes (considered racy enough to lead to the work's banning) and a scarce additional section of text in volume 2, continued in volume 4 suggesting this was not an afterthought but a planned inclusion, left out in error from some copies. It seems that Clarke deliberately sought the rarest and most valuable editions of Restif's works, possibly with a view to leaving them to the University Library; in the annotated Bibliographie there are notes next to certain titles stating "CUL has a copy", and Clarke has not bought copies of these titles.

References and further reading:

Carl Winter, 'Louis Clarke as a collector', Apollo 77:5 (1962) p.377-383 T400.b.15.56

P.L. Jacob, Bibliographie et iconographie de tous les ouvrages de Restif de la Bretonne (Paris: Auguste Fontaine, 1875) CCC.23.253